A Highland Song
“A Highland Song successfully brings the awe-inspiring freedom of Breath of the Wild to the Scottish Highlands.”
- Painterly art style
- Freeform climbing
- Creative “run” structure
- Excellent music
- Players can get stuck
- Musical sections get tedious
I played A Highland Song three times before reaching its true conclusion, but it’s my disastrous first attempt that sticks with me most. After spending a few hours lost in the Scottish Highlands, my impatience got the best of me when I accidentally misjudged a jump and hastily dove into a stony pit. My already low stamina bar reduced to nearly zero and I found myself unable to climb back out. Frustrated with how my journey panned out, I was tempted to drop the game there and accept the fact that my story was destined to conclude with a dead end.
I’m sure glad I didn’t.
Developed by Inkle, A Highland Song is built on teachable moments like that. The 2D platformer is a coming-of-age story about a runaway girl trying to find herself in a winding world that feels hopelessly overwhelming. While there’s a direct narrative to follow, its most important moments are the emergent stories players discover in-between mountain peaks. It’s only through the act of wandering that the adventure’s most profound truth emerges: You can’t find yourself if you’re never lost to begin with.
A Highland Song is a meditative quest for self-discovery that successfully translates the freedom of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild to a grounded indie adventure. There may be frustrations and setbacks along the way, but imperfection is part of the journey. It’s our job to learn from those mistakes and be better for them.
Let’s get lost
A Highland Song turns a childhood fantasy into a one-of-a-kind survival adventure. It opens with Moira McKinnon, a young girl living in the Scottish Highlands who makes a break from her rickety home and nagging mother. She’s a young woman on a mission; her plan is to run away to the sea to meet up with her uncle in time for Beltane, a Scottish festival that marks the beginning of summer. There, she hopes to find a cure to her growing pains, as her uncle promises to help her understand who she really is. It’s a simple story of childhood angst turned into a tactile quest for self-discovery.
To reflect Moira’s newfound freedom, Inkle creates a unique gameplay loop that draws inspiration from Breath of the Wild. Moira simply has to make her way to the sea by traversing a series of valleys dotted with climbable peaks. Despite being rendered in 2D, the Highlands feel as grand in scope as Zelda’s Hyrule. It’s a multilayered landscape painting awash in natural detail and rich earth tones. I get that immediate sense of the sublime as I begin bounding between peaks and scaling any surface by simply moving my joystick up.
That initial excitement soon gives way to anxiety as the reality of Moira’s adventure sets in. A Highland Song quickly reveals itself as a small-scale survival game. I need to manage Moira’s initially large stamina bar, which dictates how much she can climb in one go, by resting between arduous hikes. A hasty jump or hard landing might result in a skinned knee that cuts down the bar until I rest. I also need to find suitable shelters for her to sleep in when night falls, as trying to snooze under a rocky overhang will cut her stamina the next day. It’s an effective bit of resource management that encourages me to move with caution and always have an emergency plan ready to go when the light fades.
Every obstacle in A Highland Song can be overcome.
To make matters more stressful, Moira is on a timer — she only has a few days to get back in time for Beltane. She can arrive at the sea late, but she won’t find the answers she’s looking for. That creates a strong push and pull, as there are times when I need to get moving at the risk of injury. That tension is further compounded by the fact that the Highlands are a sprawling labyrinth of hills, caves, and secrets. Like Moira trying to navigate her tangled emotions, I begin to feel like I’m hopelessly lost, wondering if the hills ever really end.
That makes it all the more rewarding when I’m encouraged to push on. Every obstacle in A Highland Song can be overcome. Even when it feels like I’m at rock-bottom, desperately clawing my way toward the horizon, there’s always a peak that I can climb to get a view of where I’m going. There’s clarity at the end of every struggle; I just need to rise up to find it.
A roguelike musical
The core gameplay ideas make for a fine platforming adventure, but it’s the broader structure that makes the experience special. Like Inkle’s last release, the narrative murder mystery Overboard, A Highland Song takes creative notes from the roguelike genre. Each adventure works like a traditional “run,” where Moira tries to get to the sea as fast as she can. Actually getting there in time for Beltane is challenging at first, but it becomes easier the more players begin to understand both the Highlands and themselves.
In each playthrough, the goal is to find a way through the mountains via discoverable paths. Those can be sussed out through scattered papers that hold clues to shortcuts. When climbing up a peak and getting a view of the land, players can drop a pin on the map to mark the secret locations. Going to the spot and verifying the clue will reveal the path. And since the map doesn’t change between runs, that means any knowledge gained carries over (as do all collected papers). I can also find various items through my adventure that I might find have some use later, like when I discover that I need some flammable wood to light a torch.
The more I learn about the land, the faster I’m able to conquer it on my next run. And that means I can better pace myself next time too, learning when it’s OK to slow down and rest. I discover something new about myself each time that makes life a little easier, just as Moira does in her story.
Less successful is the adventure’s musical component, which doesn’t quite hold the same narrative weight. When players reach a long stretch of valley, they’re suddenly whisked into a quick rhythm minigame where they need to press buttons in time with music to leap between rocks. While completing a song successfully supposedly raises Moira’s strength, the change often feels negligible. By the end, the segments wind up feeling like long, repetitive interludes built to make flatland traversal a bit more flavorful. Though to Inkle’s credit, these segments are home to some of the best music you’ll hear in a video game this year, as the passionate Scottish folk tunes bring cultural authenticity to the journey.
Like Moira, A Highland Song feels like it’s on a quest to discover its own identity at times. It throws a lot of gameplay genres at the wall and they don’t always work together, like a teenage goth trying to fit in with the jocks. It can lead to a few messy moments, like my doomed first playthrough that left me little choice but to reset. There’s some inadvertent honesty in that, though. It wouldn’t be a true teenage coming-of-age story if it was too afraid to find its voice through experimentation. A Highland Song reminds us that it’s OK to try something new and maybe even slip up, as long as we’re willing to pick ourselves up after and keep moving with confidence. That’s what growing up is all about.
A Highland Tale was tested on PC and Steam Deck OLED.